On the Douma chemical attack: Was it a conspiracy?

The April 7 chemical weapons attack on rebel-held Douma, near the Syrian capital city Damascus, sparked horror among those who documented the massacre of at least 70 people, and sparked a limited retaliatory attack on chemical weapons facilities belonging to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government by the United States, France and Britain.

It also brought out the inevitable crowd of conspiracy theorists, pro-Russian and pro-Assad social media users itching to argue against any suggestion that the attack was exactly as it appeared: the use of chemical weapons to slaughter dozens of civilians, most likely by a regime that has a documented track record of using such weapons.

This time, the propaganda found echoes as far afield as the British parliament, where opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested the attack could be the work of Syrian rebel groups, and Barcelona, where British rock musician Roger Waters told the crowd during a concert that the White Helmets, the volunteer rescue organisation that released footage of the attack was a “fake organisation that exists only to create propaganda for the jihadists and terrorists”.

Before the strikes last Friday, BBC journalist Andrew Neil tweeted an article by former Marine Corps intelligence officer Scott Ritter saying there was “no factual evidence” for the chemical attack, and recommending that the United States wait for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has just sent a team to Syria, to prepare their report before acting.

One problem: Three days after the strikes, and nine after the chemical attacks took place, Russian and Syrian officials have still not allowed the OPCW’s fact finding team access to the site, due to what they said were “ongoing security issues”.

“Scepticism is good and healthy,” tweeted BBC correspondent Richard Hall, “but it should be based on the available evidence”. Hall had an excellent point: in an apparent chemical weapons massacre of more than 70 that was investigated and documented by varied sources, theories arguing that it was a setup often seemed to have little more basis than the lazy scepticism expressed in a meme shared by Iranian Press TV’s UK Facebook page. “Why would Assad risk provoking intervention by conducting a chemical attack when he is already winning?” it asked.

Press TV
A meme uploaded on the Press TV UK facebook page

Such thinking puts left-wing and anti-war figures like Corbyn and Waters in the vaunted company of alt-right blogger Paul Joseph Watson; his boss at tinfoil-hat outlet Infowars, Alex Jones; tireless Assad regime propagandist Mimi al-Laham AKA Syrian Girl; Katie Hopkins, described by Huck magazine as a “professional troll turned rent-a-racist”; and Vanessa Beeley, a self-described independent journalist who nevertheless defined her face-to-face meeting with Assad as her “proudest moment”.

The view questioning Assad’s motives might have made a modicum of sense if a UN independent international commission had not already condemned the Assad regime for executing at least 20 chemical weapons attacks between March 2013 and March 2017 in an easily available, painstakingly researched and considered report (click to download).

Furthermore, the UN had documented three prior chemical weapons attacks in Douma during the four months before April 7, which was the last remaining rebel stronghold near Damascus until Jaish al-Islam, the group in control of the area, surrendered it to Assad’s forces days after the latest chemical attack.

On the one hand, clear precedents documented by the UN are implicitly ignored in the claims that it is “illogical” that Assad was behind the attack. On the other, the demands for a UN resolution as a requirement for intervention wilfully ignore the power held by Russia – hardly a disinterested party in Syria – to veto any such motion.

On Monday evening, the sceptics, including Edinburgh University academic Tim Hayward, were quick to share a report by Robert Fisk, a veteran Middle East correspondent for the Independent who has published several reports on the Syrian war from a position embedded with regime troops.

Fisk reported in a short podcast that he had reached the clinic where the images from April 7 were filmed and spoken to an (in the widely shared podcast) unnamed doctor who said that, rather than a chemical attack, the symptoms shown by victims had been caused by dust inhalation, exacerbated by the panic caused when somebody shouted that a gas attack was taking place.

In this case, scepticism apparently does not stretch to question why Fisk, a journalist with a track record of friendly reporting on Assad, had been granted access to an area that the OPCW had not.

Nor was there any apparent reason to accept the version of events narrated by a doctor in an area under Assad’s control over the reports handed to the World Health Organisation of an estimated 500 people suffering from chemical attack symptoms. Or the “more than 20 videos of its aftermath, … examination of flight records compiled by citizen observers, and interviews with a dozen residents, medics and rescue workers” that the New York Times drew on to conclude that the regime had likely carried out the attack.

The open source journalism site Bellingcat added further evidence backing this version of events, examining images to determine the locations attacked, and tying the available data to previous investigations, including those conducted by the OPCW into chemical attacks in which chlorine gas was dropped in the same yellow cylinders found in Douma.

Whatever one’s view on Bellingcat’s analysis, it demonstrates the huge power that open sources, many of which are available on the internet, grants researchers interested in producing evidence-based reports.

The sceptics, meanwhile, circulate a video purporting to show child actors being trained for false flag attacks which turned out to be so flimsy that Moscow’s own media organisation debunked it.

Sceptical former British ambassador Craig Murray, declared that the Douma attack was part of a “massive orchestration of Russophobia” designed to pave the way for a new Western intervention in the Middle East. “The endgame is near,” he warned.

Has Murray, in a couple of paragraphs, uncovered the “great game” at play, purely through his cognitive power to see through the Douma conspiracy?

Echoes of Murray’s take can be found among conspiracy theorists and self-styled anti-imperialists around the world, whose desire to oppose what they see as Western imperialism sees them utterly ignore the history, voice and agency of the Syrian people themselves.

The atrocity denialism rooted in such views has been “remarkably consistent among certain far-left and far-right voices,” said Marko Attila Hoare, a historian whose work has documented similar cases of denialism during the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

“The denialists are not motivated by opposition to people being bombed or blown up, because if they were, they would speak out when the Syrian or Russian regimes were doing it,” said Hoare.

“They are motivated by ideological opposition to military intervention by Western democratic states as an end in itself, and in many cases by ideological sympathy with the Assad or Putin regimes on an anti-liberal, anti-democratic basis. They do not care what the truth is; they simply want to stop Western military intervention and fight the Assadist/Putinist corner,” he said.

It is only fitting to give the last word to a Syrian intellectual, Yassin Haj al-Saleh, who addressed this issue himself in a blistering critique of the amoral, ideologically-driven ignorance motivating support for Assad:

“They appropriate our struggle against a regime with which imperial sovereignty in the Middle East is perfectly in peace, for an alleged struggle against imperialism to which they are not even remotely close, supporting an extremely brutal and reactionary bloc about which they are utterly clueless.”